This morning I was reading a blog post about a traveller who through a series of mishaps ended up having one of those train journeys usually confined to frustrating dreams, when nothing is where it should be and time is against you, and the harder you try to escape the deeper you plunge.
It reminded me of an occasion several years ago. I absolutely love railway stations and train journeys, even more so when they don’t go according to plan and turn into an adventure, which this one did, although sadly it was caused by somebody else’s misfortune.
Travelling to England for work, whenever possible I went by train as a person, rather than as a parcel by short haul flight.
The journey started with a 40-minute drive to Poitiers railway station. Two and a half hours by train to Paris Montparnasse. A taxi across Paris to St Lazare. A train to Rouen. A train from Rouen to Dieppe, a walk or taxi from Dieppe station to the port, and the ferry to Newhaven. It took the best part of a day, and felt like a short holiday.
The return journey obviously worked in reverse. On this occasion I was due to arrive in Poitiers in the early evening, where my husband would collect me. The ferry crossing was on time. The chuggy little train from Dieppe to Rouen was on time. There was a comfortable change over time at Rouen, and the train to Paris left on time. So far everything was on schedule and going according to plan.
Fifteen minutes out of Rouen, the train squealed and halted just outside a station. None of the passengers reacted at first, but sat reading or chatting quietly. But as the minutes ticked away people became restless and began murmuring and peering out of the windows. After ten minutes I started feeling anxious, because I didn’t have a great deal of time to get across Paris to catch my next train. Another ten minutes passed, and by then I knew my connection was lost.
A voice came over the speaker announcing that somebody had jumped onto the line in front of the train and been killed. The judicial police had arrived on the scene (ugh, how awful for them), and we wouldn’t be moving again until they had completed their examination of the scene. In England, there would have been ‘an incident on the line.’ Of course everybody would understand the innuendo, but the graphic words wouldn’t be spoken. The French are less coquettish, more down to earth.
The announcement continued to say that anybody making a connection in Paris should speak to the official who would be coming into the carriage. He would make arrangements for those whose journey would be disrupted.
A friendly French couple sitting opposite me said how lucky I was – as I’d miss the last train home, the SNCF would put me in a hotel in Paris for the night. Woo hoo, (I know, it was wrong, somebody had just died, but still….) The ticket man gave me a voucher to present at St Lazare, and I was already anticipating a nice cosy hotel room and dinner, hopefully breakfast too, all at the expense of the efficient and thoughtful SNCF.
It was a long time before we began rolling again, and when we arrived at St Lazare it was pandemonium as several hundred people with vouchers stormed the Accueil. When I reached the counter and claimed my hotel room, I was disappointed to learn that the SNCF had made arrangements for the Paris to Biarritz overnight train to make a stop at Poitiers, and I was to take the Metro to the Gare d’Austerlitz to catch a train from there. I explained that I don’t use underground trains, nor lifts. I am claustrophobic. The official shrugged and suggested I took a taxi.
There seemed to be no end to the queue for taxis, but fortunately there were almost three hours before the train left, so I tacked myself to the end and shuffled along as the queue diminished. It was snowing gently. Despite the cold, and the long wait, everybody was good-humoured and patient, as I generally find the French are in these situations. I was quite enjoying listening to their banter, until I remembered I only had 7 euros in cash with me. How would I pay the taxi driver? Twinge of panic.
When I finally reached the head of the queue I had an inspiration, and I turned round and called out in French to the hordes behind me: “Does anybody want to share a taxi to Gare d’Austerlitz?” People stared in astonishment, as if I’d taken off all my clothes and rolled naked in the snow, and for a few seconds there was silence. Then from way back a man held up his arm and yelled “Yes!” He galloped up and we climbed into the taxi together. He too had been diverted and had very little time to make his connection to somewhere far away in Eastern France; as it was, he didn’t think he’d make it, but at least now he had a chance. He asked the taxi driver to put his foot down, which led to an enjoyably high speed ride through Paris, like something out of a film, with the driver pointing out landmarks that passed in a blur. As we reached Austerlitz my fellow passenger leapt out, thrust a bundle of notes at the driver and vanished.
“Ooof, he’s overpaid me,” said the driver. Yay! Result. :)
The train didn’t leave until midnight. It was now after 10.00 pm, and I should have arrived at Poitiers just after 7.00 pm. Neither my husband nor I had mobile phones at the time, so I phoned home, but there was no answer. I left a message to say I was OK and didn’t know what time I’d get to Poitiers, then roamed around the station, freshened up in their immaculate washroom, and blew the 7 euros on a hot chocolate and croissant.
Gare de Paris-Austerlitz en chantier, la facade principale (Janv. 2015)
Finally the Biarritz train moved out of the station. The passenger in front of me immediately reclined his seat into my lap, playing a Walkman, and through the earphones the tchk tchk tchk noise went round and round. His hair needed washing. I jerked my knees into the back of his seat a few times to try and disturb him, to no avail. I didn’t want to share his noise and odour, so went and stood in the area between the carriages and watched the night going by.
There was nothing out there. Not a light anywhere. No signs of road traffic. Just empty blackness. After two hours a small alarm bell went off in my head. Surely by now there should be some signs of habitation; surely we should have passed through at least a couple of stations. Either I was on the wrong train, or they had forgotten to stop. We should have reached Tours by now, but we hadn’t, so we must have been heading straight for Biarritz, and how would I get back home, and when?
There was nobody to ask what was happening; the carriages were dark, everybody was asleep, I couldn’t find anything to pull or push, so I stood there swaying and wondering if the person who had jumped in front of the train near Rouen had given a thought to how many people would find their day disrupted, let alone the distress of all those who had to deal with the aftermath of their actions. There was nothing I could do, except wait, and deal with whatever happened next. Beneath tiredness and anxiety there was, I admit, just a tiny worm of excitement wondering how this was going to end. And bizarrely, the words of one of Chris de Burgh’s songs kept running through my head:
“There’s a man on the line, and he is wasting my time …………...”
On and on went the train, through the dark and empty night. When I had resigned myself to ending up nearly 300 miles from home, with no money, the train began to slow, and there was the space age landscape of Futuroscope, and the lights of the city. The train pulled into the darkened station and tiptoed to a halt.
It was like a scene from a wartime spy film: the deserted station, the silent train, the single passenger alighting and the solitary figure standing on the platform beneath a single faint overhead light. It was 3.40 am, and my husband has been waiting here since 7.00 pm.
As he took my backpack a carriage door slammed, and another figure descended and followed us out of the station.
“Excuse me,” he said in French, “I am sorry to ask, but do you go anywhere near Roches Prémarie?” He explained that he lived alone, there was nobody he could call for a lift, no taxis and no hotels accepting guests at that hour of the night.
The man who had shared the taxi in Paris had done me a favour, and we could pass it on as we were able to deliver this gentleman to his front door, which made for a very satisfactory ending to the saga.
You wouldn’t have that kind of adventure on the short haul flight. On the other hand, who wants an adventure in mid-air?
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